City health officials want to strip the licenses of dozens of liquor stores in predominantly poor Baltimore neighborhoods, linking the outlets to higher levels of violent crime.

Health and planning officials said Friday that they will use a citywide rezoning effort to force some stores that don't conform to current law to move, shut or change their offerings.

"Clearly alcohol and violence are two of the major issues affecting the city," said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, city health commissioner, who is helping to lead the effort against the stores. "When looking at our hospitalization, our emergency room visits, they are mostly related to alcohol and drugs. … It's a public health issue."

Barbot said city officials decided to take the action after hearing from community groups looking for ways to improve neighborhood health. They also collected evidence from Johns Hopkins University researchers that the stores appear statistically related to crime.

With the mayor's blessing, city officials said they decided to target 128 stores on a list of "non-conforming" liquor stores because their locations are nestled among homes. The stores could not get a license to sell alcohol today but were grandfathered during the last comprehensive city zoning effort in the 1970s.

In most cases the stores would have to stop selling alcohol within two years of the plan's passage by City Council — a timeline already rejected as unfair by a representative of the merchants.

There will likely be a year's worth of reviews and public hearings before passage of the new zoning package that updates all land uses in Baltimore. Under the plan, about 20 non-conforming liquor stores would be rezoned as appropriate uses, meaning they could keep selling alcohol.

The goal of the liquor store rezoning is to reduce the density of outlets selling alcohol, officials said. They note Baltimore's population has dropped by almost a third in the last 40 years but the number of outlets has remained constant.

No more licenses are being issued in the city; new operators must buy an existing license. And there are no shortages of those, said Tomas J. Stosur, planning director.

In all, there are 1,330 liquor licenses in Baltimore, he said. Liquor stores hold about 300, restaurants hold about 400 and taverns have more than 600. As part of the rezoning effort, officials also plan to crack down on taverns that sell more carry-out alcohol than is consumed inside, a violation of state law.

Stosur said using the zoning law was an appropriate, and legal, method to tackle some of the city's ills because such law exists to protect residents' health and safety.

"There was no timeline given when they were grandfathered, but it's been over 40 years," he said. "I don't think anyone expected at the time they'd still be here."

Stosur said the city plans to help the store owners find proper new locations, sell their licenses or retool their business.

Mostly, they hope the stores will stay open in their communities and sell other, healthier items. The health department also is working to reduce so-called food deserts, communities without reasonable access to produce and other fresh food items.

About 90 percent of the city's liquor stores are owned by Korean Americans, and a legal representative for them says two years is not enough time to force the stores to move, shut or change operations.

"It's unprecedented," said Bryan Everett, the legal adviser to the Korean-American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland. "These are hard-working, honest people who've invested their life savings in their businesses. What this bill does is take that investment away from them without any compensation."

If the time period were significantly longer or there was other compensation, Everett said, the merchants group may be willing to go along with the rezoning. But the current proposal will cause their businesses to lose too much value, he said, adding: "'It's probably not legal. It's not reasonable."

Everett said he hopes the merchants can reach a compromise with the city.

City officials say they've already invited the business owners to meet and discuss the proposal, but acknowledged that some merchants would not be pleased. Still they insisted the move was in the public good. They pointed to Hopkins research that showed the liquor stores appear to be contributing to violent crime in the city.

In 2008 and 2009, Hopkins researchers found, the median number of violent crimes in neighborhoods with non-conforming liquor stores was 5.5 within the immediate vicinity of the store, compared with 2 in an area of demographically similar neighborhoods without such liquor stores. The crimes included murders, rapes and aggravated assaults.

Almost three-quarters of the neighborhoods with a high number of non-conforming liquor stores were poor areas, with more than a fifth of people living below the federal poverty line.

No one had to tell Mark Washington the stores can cause trouble. There are six within three blocks in Northeast Baltimore's Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood, if you count taverns operating as stores, said Washington, executive director of the area community corporation.

He said there is trash, loitering, addiction and violence in the neighborhood that he believes is fueled by the availability of alcohol. He's complained frequently to city and liquor board officials and said he's succeeded in shuttering one store.

Washington believes at least three remaining stores are in violation of zoning law because of their location or because they're taverns operating as stores. At one location, he said, a merchant that sells fresh produce wants to open but the shop owner wants to sell his license to another liquor store.

"It's frustrating," he said. "This action by the city on zoning is very much needed. It's more tools in the tool box."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts